Sitting is the new smoking

There’s been a lot of buzz recently surrounding a slew of research outlining a case that the health effects of sitting excessively throughout the day are now overtaking the health risks attributed to smoking, and by a handsome margin. In fact, one study has the mortality rate associated with obesity as tenfold that of tobacco use (35 million deaths in the US associated to obesity versus 3.5 million for tobacco). The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a vast campaign to socially outlaw smoking that achieved significant success in increasing the stigma attached to puffing in public and around small children. The cards now appear to be falling into place to hone this same amount of focus towards increasing the amount of physical activity we achieve each day and reducing the associated health risks of being sedentary. As Nilofer Merchant, a Silicon Valley corporate strategist puts it “sitting is the smoking of our generation”.

Besides a proposed tie to reducing the production of a cholesterol-targeting enzyme called lipase, the act of sitting itself elicits only a few minor complications like circulatory issues, low back pain and tension headaches. However it’s what we’re doing – or more like what we’re not doing – while we’re sitting that can lead to an array of far more severe comorbidities including:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic diseases and
  • Cancer

“A person with a desk job may burn [a few hundred] calories a day at work but that same person might burn [several thousand] in a job that requires considerable physical effort” says James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine. Considering we’re sitting an average of 9.7hrs a day and sleeping another 7.7hrs, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for actively sparking our metabolism and attending to our personal health.

This doesn’t mean you have to change careers and become a carpenter with an ultra-marathon running side gig, it may be as simple as creating potential for activity throughout your daily life e.g. taking the stairs instead of the elevator when you go for breaks, parking at the back of the lot instead of the spot closest to the entrance or simply doing a couple of laps around the office on your way to the washroom. For the executives out there, why not introduce ‘walking meetings’ into your weekly schedule. “Instead of going to a coffee meeting or the conference room, I ask people to go on a walking meeting” says Merchant. “There’s something about getting physically out of the box that leads to out-of the-box thinking. You’ll be surprised how fresh air drives fresh thinking”.

There are also ways of ‘actively sitting’ including raising your desk to standing height, dialing in to meetings while you’re on the treadmill or, better still, ordering a treadmill-equipped desk! (Google “treadmill desk”). And just in case you thought this was some kind of modern revelation, here are some renowned ‘active thinkers’ of our time; Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemmingway and Mark Twain.

For more great ideas on how to expand your time away from sitting, check out this clip from Dr Mike Evans, Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto entitled “23 and a half hours”:
Geoff Starling
Strength & Conditioning Director
Eau Claire YMCA